An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Fenshu 焚書

Apr 9, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Fenshu 焚書 "A book [that some would like] to burn", also called Lishi Fenshu 李氏焚書 "Master Li's burning book", is a collection of philosophical treatises written during the late Ming period 明 (1368-1644) by the philosopher Li Zhi 李贄 (1527-1602). He has given his 6 juan-long book this title because Li Zhi critically attacked contemporary Neo-Confucian scholars and expected that they would organise for the prohibition of his writing. It was first printed in 1590 and then again in 1600. It was, like foreseen, prohibited in 1602 and again in 1625. The ban was only lifted during the Qianlong reign-period 清乾 (1735-1795).

The Fenshu is a collection of poetry and prose writings that reflect his philosophical view of society and history. It includes Li Zhi's most important critique toward Neo-Confucianism as is was thought and practised by contemporary philosophers. The book is introduced by a foreword written by Li himself and a preface by Jiao Hong 焦竑 (1540-1620). It also includes Yuan Zhongdao's 袁中道 (1570-1626) biography of Li Zhi, the Li Wenling zhuan 李溫陵傳.

In his worldview, Li Zhi was influenced by the Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Shouren 王守仁 (Wang Yangming 王陽明, 1472-1529) and by Buddhism. The human body was, he thought, part of the world and in all its parts identical to the whole universe as well as each single fragment of it. This was best expressed by the purity of the human heart that corresponded to the untainted pureness of nature. Yet Li Zhi did not believe in the original unity of all objects in the universe which was the proposition of most Neo-Confucians. Li argued that all objects on earth were created out of the dual "energy/spirit" (qi 氣) of Yin and Yang, which can best be seen in the existence of male and female. Li Zhi refused the Neo-Confucian and Daoist concept of the unified Great Extreme (taiji 太極) from which all things came into being. He therefore does not cling to the concept of a good Heavenly order (li 理) that was given to all things when they were produced or humans when they were born.

Li Zhi argued that all men had by birth the "heart of a small child" (tong xin 童心), true and pristine, and devoid of any falseness. Only when growing up, all that one heard and saw penetrated into the mind and corrupted is original pureness. All speech, activities and thoughts would henceforth be influenced by the improper (jia 假) purposes that had crept into the heart.

Li especially cautioned against reading too many books which would implant fallacious thoughts into the mind, especially those of the Confucians and Neo-Confucians.

Li Zhi criticized the Confucians, notably Mengzi 孟子 (385-304 or 372-289 BCE), for his political and educational activism. In a very Daoist manner, Li Zhi asserted that the best form of government was non-action (wuwei 無爲), the best form of reigning was silentness (wusheng 無聲), and the best form of education quietness (wuyan 無言). The people suffered, he said, because politicians and the bureaucracy too much interfered into the lives of the common people, and exploited and oppressed them with the argument of acting benevolently (ren 仁). Instead, everyone had to rely on himself and to act according to his/her own needs and beliefs, beyond the limits and restrictions imposed by the Confucian order of society. Li Zhi therefore also suggested that man and woman were of equal rights and to be regarded as of the same nature and capability. The Confucian scholars, he said, did exactly the opposite of what they requested from others, namely working and learning for themselves and to reap profits (li 利) for themselves (zisi 自私) and their descendants, and not for any others. Words and behaviour of the Confucians were not in congruence with each other, and their stance was nothing but sanctimony. Li Zhi tried to free his contemporarians from the fetters of the Confucianism that dominated society, education, professional career and politics.

The Fenshu was published by the Zhonghua shuju Press 中華書局 in 1961 as a facsimile of the edition in late Qing period 清 (1644-1911) series Guocui congshu 國粹叢書 and then again in 1975, together with his book Xu fenshu 續焚書.

The reader might consult the studies by Phillip Grimberg (2014), Dem Feuer geweiht: Das Lishi Fenshu des Li Zhi (1527-1602) (Marburg: Tectum), and A book to Burn and a Book to Keep (Hidden [i.e. Cangshu]): Selected writings of Li Zhi, ed. and transl. by Rivi Handler-Spitz, Pauline C. Lee, and Haun Saussy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

Qian Xianmin 錢憲民 (1992). "Fenshu 焚書", in Zhou Gucheng 周谷城, ed. Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Vol. Zhexue 哲學 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), 702.